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a letter from the Napa Valley

By Becky Sue Epstein, 09/03

I meant to embark on an objective, scholarly investigation of some aspect of Northern California's Napa wines while attending the recent Napa Valley Vintner's 2003 Charity Auction, but somehow, it never really got underway. The truth is, I was having far too much fun.

I thought I'd taken a stab at beginning my research when we stopped to tour Copia, the year-old American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts with its modernistic architecture, wine and food-related gardens and exceptional exhibition of Persian food and wine-related antiquities. We also had a bite of lunch at Julia's Kitchen restaurant, named for the American cooking icon Julia Child, where I enjoyed a delectably light morel and vegetable millefeuille.

The Napa Valley Vintner's Wine Auction is the largest charitable wine auction in the world, in terms of numbers of attendees and monies raised for a variety of causes, including housing and care for vineyards workers in the Valley. This 23rd year, a record $6.47 million was raised over the course of a long and activity-packed weekend in June. The Auction opens on a Thursday afternoon with a gigantic tented picnic and barrel tasting for bidders on cased-lots to be drawn from these barrels in the future. A few days later, I was chatting with a lovely blonde lady from Arizona who told me she was quite pleased with her winning bids. When I gently inquired about logistical details such as shipping, storage and delivery dates, she seemed quite unconcerned: "I just do the bidding; my husband takes care of the rest". This auction is one of those "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" events.

Dinner with a Rothschild

That evening, I was invited to a black tie dinner at Opus One, the collaboration of Californian and French wine royalty, the Mondavis and the de Rothschilds. Everything about Opus One is meant to impress - and it does, with discreet stone gateposts announcing entrance by appointment only, the winery built into its own man-made hill (for temperature-controlled storage) and the wines themselves, with their elegant accessibility.

While sipping Krug before a golden sunset on the front lawn, we watched a new, silver Ferrari 575M Maranello turn into the gates, roar straight for us at 125 miles per hour before lithely turning and coming to a smooth stop. Emerging from the passenger seat was none other than celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck: a sensation as our surprise “cook” for the evening. After that came an intimate dinner for a few dozen people in the winery. Amongst all the rich and famous guests, I was privileged to be seated next

 


  to winery head Michael Mondavi. When he excused himself to attend the first of many 90th birthday celebrations for his father Robert, Michael's gorgeous and charming wife Isabel took over his hosting duties effortlessly. And I must say I found young Julien de Rothschild an enticing blend of Gallic good looks and British charm; his mixture of French and English accents was irresistible during a brief, welcoming speech. It was altogether one of those warm, elegant and seamless evenings you imagine a gala dinner should be (Becky, left, listens to Michael Mondavi).

Maserati Test Drive

The following morning found me back at Opus One, where they happened to have a fleet of Maserati cars hanging about for people to test drive. I had to try them out, so having borrowed a friend's eager husband (mine was elsewhere on a business trip) I set off in a bright blue Maserati Spyder along the windy roads of the Napa Valley. On a bright, sunny morning, what could be better? I needed some time to get used to the racecar-style paddle shift system on the steering wheel, and I must admit that I transfered into the optional automatic mode with some relief. Without a map, we soon found ourselves blithely watching vineyards, hills and lakes stream by the windows, without a clue as to where we were. The car, of course, handled absolutely beautifully, and kept our automatic-drive secret when we returned it to the Maserati people intact - and somewhat relieved and very proud.

Tour de Oakville Bicycle Trip

When I'd received my “assignment” to this event, I must admit I was dreading it, not having been very active recently. (It had been and extremely cold rainy Spring in my part of the world you understand.) I needn't have worried. Scores of helpful aides helped us locate the right size bicycles, stock up with water bottles, and put on our helmets. A leader herded each dozen of us out onto the side road, toward the next winery. Oh, yes, we'd already had pastries, Champagne and orange juice at Opus One to give us energy for the ride. The weather was pleasantly cool, with a slight overcast - tailor-made for bike-riding. We tootled along the nearly-flat road, and just as I felt I was getting a bit of exercise, we turned into the next winery, a few hundred yards down the road, for music, wines and appetisers. Each time we re-mounted it seemed we were at the next winery: Franciscan, Groth, Silver Oak and Swanson, each only a few minute's ride from the next. At the end of this delightfully arranged circle of wineries, though I'm sure I consumed far more kilocalories than I expended, I had the pleasant illusion that I'd been quite sporty. We relaxed on the rooftop of the winery, with a 360-degree view over the heart of the Napa Valley.

The Frozen Dinner

As it happened, the imported chef for Friday night's Gala Dinner - for around 2000 people - was Mark Militello of southeast Florida restaurants Mark's Las Olas and Mark's at the Park. Having sampled his cuisine several times, I was pleased to see the meal was authentic and very well done. I still don't understand how such wonderful food can be delivered to that many diners at the same time, all at the correct temperature - but it was. It's not the food but the ambient temperature I am referring to in the “frozen dinner” phrase above. Within minutes of arriving in the golden sunshine at the grounds of the Meadowood Resort, the sun went behind the hills and the temperature began to plummet. All of us women dressed in our finery began to feel the chill. The dilemma: would drinking a lot more chilled Champagne raise my body temperature, or lower it? Just as I was seriously debating whether three glasses was a good place to stop, or not nearly enough to do any good, we were invited to take our seats so dinner could begin.

Discovering that my assigned table was at the edge of the gigantic tent, and suspicious that this was Social Siberia, I noted that I had mercifully been placed directly in front of a heater pouring hot air into the tent. Saved! And it wasn't just me. Every woman who happened to pass our table would stop directly in front of the heater, uttering cries of relief, until sufficiently thawed out to proceed along her way. However, when the evening winds began to dull the heater's influence, I'm afraid I fled the scene (I am finishing this letter from my home on the East Coast of America, tucked up in bed in Slivovitz and flannel - I mean in flannel with the Slivovitz nearby - trying to ward of a headcold before my next wine trip to Europe in a day and half).

The Auction

Saturday is the day of the main event; the Napa Valley Wine Auction. As well as the serious business of bidding, Saturday is an orgy of gorging in the sun, as we made periodic forays out to the many gourmet food tasting tables, and to the wine bar, and then returned to the gigantic, shady tent, to consume our treasures. Everything from seafood to barbeque to ice cream desserts was available, all created by the finest chefs in the Valley with fresh ingredients from local cheeses and edible flowers, to flown-in Kaui shrimp and fine meats.

At some point after noon, the action started in centre of the tent, and people's faces turned to their programs. Buoyed by the auctioneers, peer pressure and fine wines, this group of fun-loving wine-lovers opens their cheque books in a serious way.
 

And everyone leaves pleased - as happy with their winning bids, as they are with their contributions to the many Napa causes funded by the millions of dollars raised here each year.


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